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Scandal

The Party, The Pie, and the Girl Who Brought Down a Gilded Age Tycoon

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Newspaper illustration: “The Girl in the Pie” at the three thousand five hundred dollar dinner in Artist Breese’s New York Studio” (event occurred May 20, 1895)

Gilded Age New York was a veritable playground for men both bachelor and married alike. From the Lobster Palace restaurants to the Bohemian enclaves of Greenwich Village to the theaters dotting Broadway, there were a variety of entertainments–and women–available for gentlemen to partake. The quintessential man-about-town of the period was the famed, wealthy, and handsome (by the standards of the day) architect Stanford White.

Stanford White [luxurious mustaches were a sign of virility!]

White and his partners McKim and Mead were–along with Richard Morris Hunt–the men who defined the architecture of the Gilded Age. White designed many of New York’s most celebrated buildings and edifices, from the Arch at Washington Square and Madison Square Garden II to the “cottages” on Newport (Rosecliffe) to the mansions on Long Island’s Gold Coast and down the Atlantic seaboard.

Washington Square Arch designed by Stanford White
Washington Square Arch designed by Stanford White

In between his designing and decorating, White managed to squeeze in a few hours chasing after teenage girls and gallivanting through New York’s burgeoning nightlife. Of course, as we know, these two hobbies ultimately caused his doom, but ten years before the “Trial of the Century” Stanford White was dragged into another scandal involving his predilection for very young women. This event became known as the “Pie Girl Dinner.”

Stanford White had collected a bevy of like-minded friends by the 1890s, from society photographers, to artists, to Wall Street bankers, and the like. James L. Breese, the aforementioned society photographer, had a reputation just as naughty as White, stemming from his notorious all-male midnight salons. These late-night suppers were equally sumptuous and scandalous, where the main course were the pretty young women hired as waitresses.

James Lawrence Breese — blue-blooded society photographer and stockbroker

It was only natural that someone devised the idea to make a pretty young woman the actual main course.

The occasion: A friend’s tenth wedding anniversary

The idea: a girl inside of a pie

The place: Breese’s photography studio

The girl: sixteen year old Susie Johnson

The 1890s were already becoming notorious for lavish stunts pulled by bored, wealthy “400” socialites, but there was still something a bit shocking about this dinner. Somehow, months later, Joseph Pulitzer’s tabloid newspaper The New York World managed to get a scoop on this dinner, and suddenly, Stanford White’s lurid, seedy doings were splashed on the front pages of the metropolis’s most notorious newspaper.

The paper described the dinner in excruciating detail, from the scantily clad young waitresses to the names of the dinner guests to the naked girl–Susie Johnson–who sprang out of a large pie. Johnson later disappeared (newspapers reported her death a little over a decade later: the wages of sin), and Stanford White’s personal reputation acquired a slight stench. Though he was not fully ostracized, when he was murdered by Harry Thaw in 1906 out of jealousy and madness over deflowering his young wife, Evelyn Nesbit, many were not surprised or sympathetic. Some news reports went so far as to call White a pervert.

New York as a bachelor’s playground did not disappear, of course, but the specter of Stanford White was a warning to all men who dared to skirt the edges of respectability.

Further Reading

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu
Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age by Eric Homberger
The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century by Simon Baatz

Sin and Scandal in Edwardian Britain: Fraudster Heiress Violet Charlesworth

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Violet's motorcar
Violet’s motorcar – The Motor (Jan 12, 1909) – Google Books

The Edwardian era was an age of reinvention and publicity, and with the right appearance, even the humblest of liars could obtain both. Like Therese Humbert before, Violet (aka May) Charlesworth managed to bilk money and prestige from unsuspecting dupes who were taken in by her appearance of class and poise. Violet’s life of crime actually began in 1900, when her mother set the ball rolling by informing a Dr. Barratt that Violet and her eldest daughter were to inherit a fortune of 75,000 upon the eldest daughter turning twenty-one. This daughter died before twenty-one, but two years later, Violet, now eighteen, claimed a young man named Alexander McDonald promised to settle 150,000 on her when she reached the age of twenty-five. On the strength of this so-called legacy, Violet’s mother was lent various sums by a Mrs. Smith from 1903 on.

Noticing how easily duped people were by these huge lies, the Charlesworths undoubtedly figured they could aim much higher. In 1907, the Charlesworths decamped to Rhyl, a seaside resort in Wales, where they spread the news that Violet was god-daughter of General “Chinese” Gordon of Khartoum and was to inherit 100,000 from his estate upon her twenty-fifth birthday. Violet looked the part of an heiress–she was noted for her fleet of expensive motorcars–and her beauty attracted all sorts of gentlemen willing to settle sums of money and gifts upon her fair countenance. Violet used these “gifts” to speculate thousands of pounds on the stock exchange, which she used to purchase those aforementioned motorcars, “diamond tiaras and other jewerlry, [and] hiring country houses in England, Scotland and Wales.” The Charlesworths had since moved to a manion in Bodera, St. Asaph, Wales, where they lived lavishly on Violet’s speculations until her mysterious death in January of 1909.

Newspapers across Britain, and even in America and Australia, reported on the shocking motor accident that flung the beautiful heiress over the cliffs and into the sea at Penmaenmawr. The area was combed by detectives both professional and amateur, particularly after no body was found and news emerged that Violet’s speculations had failed her to a tune of 27,000 in debt! Photographs of the presumed-dead heiress were circulated in newspapers and police stations across Great Britain, and though there were momentary distractions of false sightings, Violet was eventually found residing in Oban, Scotland under a false name. Unsurprisingly both Violet and her mother Miriam were convicted of four counts of conspiracy to obtain money by false pretenses and two counts of obtaining money by false pretenses, and were sentenced to five years of hard labor (later reduced to three). Violet’s release from prison was mentioned in the February 24, 1912 issue of The Autocar, but after that, the Charlesworths vanished into the ether of history; however, Violet’s audacious scam left a marker on pop culture: the cliff where she was allegedly thrown is known as “Violet’s Leap” and “did she fall or was she pushed?” quickly entered the English lexicon, first in reference to the possible source of Violet’s “death,” later to to flippantly insinuate how a girl lost her virginity, and “now used by headline writers about women who lose their jobs in dramatic circumstances.”

Sources

The Criminal Appeal Reports. v. 4 1910.
Science and the Criminal by Charles Ainsworth Mitchell
FIND GIRL SWINDLER; IS ALIVE AND WELL; Violet Charlesworth, Who Said She Was Heiress to Millions, Is at Oban, Scotland – New York Times
Harry Thomas’ Memory Lane, Volume 1 by Harry Thomas
From Hue & Cry to Humble Pie by Judy Parkinson
Image of Violet Charlesworth
“The Startling Career of Violet Charlesworth” – Los Angeles Herald, 14 February 1909
Vanishing Violet – the Wolverhampton heiress who disappeared in the “Welsh Cliffs Mystery”
Historian seeks information about Rhyl conwoman

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Sin and Scandal: The Langworthy Case of 1887

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Divorce court scene from 1910

It’s always interesting to stumble across long-forgotten scandals of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. The tragic case of Mrs. Langworthy (née Mildred Sabine Palliser Long), as recounted by Mrs. Stuart Menzies in her second book of gossip, Further Indiscretions (1918), chills the blood over one hundred years later.


The Langworthy case was remarkable chiefly as a record of villainy that to my mind seems almost unique, and leaves one dumbly wondering at the dark possibilities of cruelty that lie in the human heart.

It also shows the apparently anomalous case of a woman who first obtained a decree nisi with £1500 a year alimony from the Courts and subsequently £20,000 for breach of promise of marriage against the same man. The law is a wonderful institution.

The way I came to know so much about the case was through being asked by Dr. Godson, the great ladies’ doctor of those days, if I would go and see a patient of his who was in great trouble and ill health as well as practically penniless. Of course I went, and from Mrs. Langworthy’s own lips heard her pitiful story, which as it appears to have been entirely forgotten, I relate briefly.

The Mrs. Langworthy of the case had been a Miss Long, the daughter of well-to-do people in Ireland, her father being estate agent at one time to the Marquess of Downshire and later to Lord O’Neile. She was a tall, handsome girl and gifted, as was proved by her passing in 1873 as one of the senior candidates at the Dublin University, taking honours in French, Latin, Euclid and Algebra. Her composition on English literature was chosen as good enough to be read aloud by Professor Dowden. Fired with her success she then went to Cambridge, where she shone in Latin, Divinity, etc.

About this time her father lost most of his money, and Miss Long decided she would cost him nothing more and went out as governess. During a visit to Paris with her brother, who was staying at that comfortable old-fashioned Hotel Bedford, she met the man who was to ruin her life, namely, the exceedingly rich and not ill-looking Mr. Langworthy, with great estates in South America, a magnificently appointed yacht, French chef and all the luxuries and comforts which usually surround men with large fortunes. At the time he became enamoured of Miss Long he was a widower. His first wife, Lady Alice, sister of the second or third Earl of Limerick, died at sea in 1876, under what circumstances I do not know. Mr. Langworthy proved a devoted if somewhat dictatorial lover, and an engagement quickly followed on their first meeting, but Miss Long was told under no circumstances must his mother know anything about it as she might disinherit him; the engagement must be a secret.

During this time he persuaded Miss Long to go for a little cruise in his yacht, having provided a suitable ballast of chaperonage. They stayed at Cherbourg for a day or two, and while there he introduced his fiancee to a number of people, including the Hon. Cecil Cadogan, Mr. Dennison and others. While at Cowes Mr. and Mrs. Vereker invited them to dinner. All was comfortable and plain sailing. One day Mr. Langworthy while at Cherbourg asked Miss Long to go for a drive with him to Caen; they looked at the cathedral and then taking both her hands said, “I want you to marry me at once; I cannot wait any longer for you and have arranged everything.” She was entirely taken by surprise and objected. While he pleaded she turned over in her mind all the circumstances, and feeling there could be nothing but love to influence him, as she was penniless except for her own earnings, consented, knowing nothing about French marriage law.

The carriage was told to stop before a Catholic Church some miles out in the country from Caen. Here awaited them (all having evidently been arranged) a priest in a black cassock and a fat, disagreeable smile, who read some sort of a service in Latin. As a matter of fact the whole thing was a fraud; seemingly such things can be arranged where money and villainy are not wanting. There were many interesting features in the story at this time, much too lengthy and complicated to relate here, but various thoughts came to her mind making Miss Long doubtful about the legality of this marriage ceremony, and suggesting that she would be happier with a second ceremony.

Mr. Langworthy, having had the legal training of a barrister, knew how to turn his knowledge to account, said, certainly if she wanted another ceremony she should have one. This time the chaplain of the American Seaman’s Mission at Antwerp performed it, the divine’s name being the Rev. Doctor Potts, a member of the Presbyterian Church.

What Mr. Langworthy knew and his unfortunate dupe did not know was that only civil marriages are valid in Belgian law. However, in all good faith she had taken part in two ceremonies, the one near Caen in September, 1882, the second in January, 1883, at Antwerp. After this latter Mr. Potts entered the following in his register:—

Antwerp, January 10th, 1883.—Edward Langworthy, England, widower, 35 years old. Mildred Pallise Long, Belfast (Ireland), maiden, 27 years old. Marriage ceremony by Rev. Arthur Potts.”

This was duly signed by the witnesses, one being Mrs. Potts, the other a Mrs. Bailey, whom I think was acting companion, chaperon or something of the kind, I have forgotten what. A copy of the certificate was handed to Mrs. Langworthy, but it was taken away by her husband, who said he would send it to his solicitors for safe keeping, and he would mark it private and important. He then made his wife promise to keep the marriage secret for a year as he did not wish his mother to know anything about it.

A happy time followed in the yacht; Mr. Langworthy seemed to be deeply in love with his wife; it was all glorious and the days chased each other like some love poems under sunny skies. They stayed a few days at Lisbon, where Mr. Langworthy introduced his wife to Lady Ashton, Lord Francis Cecil and others (this is a point to bear in mind).

From Lisbon, if I remember correctly, they sailed for Buenos Ayres, where Mr. Langworthy owned property. During the voyage his wife told him she expected to become a mother. From this moment his manner entirely changed and, instead of expressing pleasure, exclaimed, “We must put the little beast out to nurse.” By degrees he now became so brutal it was forced upon her he was hoping his treatment, drugs and starvation, would kill the child, and possibly the mother also.

Driven nearly mad by his treatment, one evening she got out of her bed and went in search of her husband, threw her arms round him and implored him to say why he had so changed. He then told her not to make a fool of herself, she knew perfectly well she was not his wife and the child would be illegitimate, and as this had happened she must leave the yacht on reaching Buenos Ayres and go home again at once; if the affair became known it would be his ruin.

Without allowing her to land at their destination, he put her on board a French tramp steamer without a deck house, that having been washed away on its last voyage, and of course without either a doctor or stewardess. Mrs. Langworthy begged for some baby clothes, and was given a box containing a few yards of flannel and calico, and £50 in her pocket and sent off home!

So back to England she came full of misery and shame with nothing to prove the story she had to tell but her wedding ring and the baby. Her pride would not let her seek her people, whom she knew would wish to help her but could not afford it. To use Mrs. Langworthy’s own words to me, “When I first arrived I tramped London trying to find some clergyman to take up my case for me and see me righted; I could get help from none. One told me he had heard stories like that before and was sorry he could do nothing for me.” Another, living in some state in Grosvenor Square, who preached regularly in a fashionable chapel not far from Berkeley and Grosvenor Squares, was sitting one evening after dinner before a comfortable fire sipping coffee from delicate china and toying with a gold spoon, surrounded by expensive fur rugs, books and comforts of all sorts, when Mrs. Langworthy sought his help and told her story. He did not rise from his chair while the poor woman poured forth her tale and implored him to help her. It was a wet night and she was wet through, having tramped the streets all day in hopes of finding some one to help her, her boots were worn through in places and her teeth chattered from cold and want of food. She eventually was told he did not believe a word of her story, it was too impossible, but if it was true she must “Have faith.”

Poor soul! she asked how that was going to find food for her child and herself and turned bitterly away. She described to me her despair as she once more walked along the wet pavements and meditated drowning herself and her child. Passing down Conduit Street she noticed a brass plate on a door with the name of Lumley and Lumley, solicitors, printed on it, she had not tried them, but would do so first thing next morning. She had already tried several solicitors, but she was destitute, friendless, broken in health, the law and the Church refused to help her, justice was her only weapon, while the whole force of the Langworthy’s immense wealth was thrown into the scale against her.

Her husband’s relations would not listen to her, and this is the plight she was in when she entered the offices of Messrs. Lumley and Lumley in Conduit Street. They listened to her story, gave her money to go on with, took the trouble to collect the necessary evidence to prove the ceremonies that had taken place and undertook to fight the case for her. Magnificently they did it through all the courts for four years. Mr. Robert Lumley I do not remember meeting, but Mr. Theodore Lumley I am glad to have known, for he did for this defenceless, broken-hearted woman what not one single shepherd of Christ’s flock would do.

Another revolting feature about the treatment from which this unhappy woman suffered, was the attitude of her own sex, the lodging-house woman where she lodged turned her out on hearing she was not living with her husband! Others treated her as if she was one of the lowest of those who walk the streets for their living. Even had that been the case, they should have shown some humanity to a suffering sister.

I did what I could for her, and by degrees one after another helped her; but that she got justice in the end and her life made possible during the long years while the case was in the courts is entirely due to Messrs. Lumley and Lumley, the solicitors, and to The Pall Mall Gazette, who took her case up warmly, collected money for her, published special editions of their paper with all the details of the case as it unfolded itself from day to day. They also brought out a little booklet or pamphlet, entitled A Romance of the Law Courts, Mrs. Langworthy’s Trials and Triumphs. Anyone wishing to read all the particulars of this extraordinary case cannot do better than get a copy and read it, if there are any now to be had.

Mrs. Langworthy’s troubles were, however, not yet over, though the learned judges held her marriage to be illegal, but a marriage “in fact” and granted her £1500 alimony. Mr. Langworthy had fled to America, refused to pay and was nowhere to be found. His solicitors and counsel worked indefatigably to delay any steps taken by Mrs. Langworthy’s solicitors to obtain the money for her. The husband’s wealth was a terrible weapon. I have been told great London papers even refused, through the influence of Mr. Langworthy’s agents, to insert her lines in their agony columns. Goods of his, seized to pay his debts to his wife, were instantly claimed by his mother as her property and therefore inviolate. While all this was taking place Mrs. Langworthy was often in great need, and but for the kindly help of The Pall Mall Gazette and Messrs. Lumley and Lumley would surely have gone mad.

Twenty thousand pounds on paper did not help her much. Her husband was made a bankrupt, but he had made his English property over to his mother. In the end the victim triumphed, having fought hard for her child, but there was no getting away from the fact that the strain had told upon her considerably. She was aged and broken down at the end of the four years almost beyond recognition.

The end of these people was as tragic as their lives. Mrs. Langworthy rejoined her husband and forgave him; [in 1898] she died suddenly when in Paris with him and he committed suicide next day.